If one were to sit down and write about Thelma Ritter, it is inevitable that Rear Window would come up. Fair enough. It’s her most memorable part, and the role of Stella is vital to the film, although many people might not notice why.
You see, as the housekeeper/nurse to James Stewart’s voyeuristic photog, she’s the conscience – the voice in the background telling him that he should have better things to do than watch other people’s affairs. Everyone remembers the great Ritter line;
“People should go outside and look in at their own lives”
That’s the thing about the characters that she played. They were usually world-wise, and the people around her would have done well to listen up.
In Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street, her low-life informant Moe is the one who points Richard Widmark’s Skip towards the woman who could be his salvation. Ritter got one of her half-dozen Oscar nominations for this performance, and it’s her best. When you watch her quiet resignation as she prepares to die at the hands of the Commie villain, you see an entire lifetime of disappointment and sadness coalesce in a few moments. It’s film acting at its finest.
Then there are comic roles, such as Doris Days’ perpetually hung-over maid in Pillow Talk. She is underused in this one, but she makes the most of the screen time she does get. One of the funniest bits in the film is her drinking Rock Hudson under the table, and sure enough, giving him the correct romantic advice.